On January 15, UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union was voted on by the House of Commons. The Commons rejected the deal by 432 votes to 202; the 230-vote loss is the biggest loss by a government since universal suffrage began. In 1924, a Labour minority government, which had just 191 of 615 seats, suffered three defeats by 140-166 votes.
On December 12, Theresa May won a confidence vote within her party by 200 votes to 117. In the Commons vote, 118 Conservative MPs rebelled, with 196 in favour of the deal, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which usually supports the government, also defected. Labour MPs voted against the deal by 248-3, and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Liberal Democrats unanimously opposed the deal.
On January 16, May’s government won a parliamentary vote of confidence by 325-306, with no defections from the Conservatives or DUP.. So while May’s hugely significant Brexit deal was heavily defeated, her government survives. This vote shows there is no majority for a general election.
On March 29, the UK will leave the European Union, with or without a deal. It is very unlikely that any Brexit deal will be acceptable to both the EU and the vast majority of the Conservative rebels and DUP. May will need substantial Labour support to win a Commons majority for any deal that is acceptable to the EU.
However, it is likely in Labour’s political interest to oppose any deal offered by May. Many Labour voters strongly oppose Brexit, and would object to Labour facilitating Brexit by dealing with May. A YouGov poll for the People’s Vote campaign had Labour’s support slumping to 26% if it supported or abstained from a Brexit deal vote. This poll was conducted for an anti-Brexit lobby group, but it is likely to contain some truth.
If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, it is likely most voters will blame the Conservatives for the economic chaos that ensues. So Labour may simply oppose anything the Conservatives offer, and run down the clock til March 29.
While Labour may end up officially supporting the campaign for a second Brexit referendum, a minority of Labour MPs oppose such a campaign, so it is unlikely to win backing from the Commons. Revoking Brexit without a referendum is even more unlikely.
While a large majority of the Commons oppose a “no deal” Brexit, that majority must agree on something by March 29 to avert the no deal scenario. Too many people disagree with each other on how to avoid no deal, and that is why no deal could plausibly happen.
A delay to the Brexit date could give MPs more time to agree, but the EU will probably not accept such a delay unless there is a real prospect of an agreement. A delay would be granted if a deal had passed the Commons, but legislation required to implement that deal had not yet passed. Delays would also be granted if there were a second referendum or a general election.
A source for this article is Stephen Bush of the New Statesman’s Morning Call email (though it is more like Evening Call in Melbourne).